Last month, from April 17-18, the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative hosted its inaugural Spirits on the Rise Summit — a two-day event connecting BIPOC businesspeople in spirits with industry leaders from historically underrepresented communities to accelerate their businesses.
The first day of the event took place at the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee, and the second day at the Nearest Green Distillery in Shelbyville, Tennessee. Established on the former site of the historic Sand Creek Farms, the Nearest Green Distillery now sits on 432 acres and is home to the Humble Baron bar and restaurant, which boasts the longest bar in the world.
Nearest Green Distillery is named for the formerly enslaved, long-uncredited man who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey when he was a boy. The distillery stands not only as a testament to the past but also to the future, with its commitment to the diverse spirits industry envisioned by Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey’s CEO and founder Fawn Weaver, her husband Keith and the brand’s many team members and supporters, which include Green’s descendants.
Related: Formerly Enslaved Black Man Nearest Green Taught Jack Daniel Everything He Knew About Whiskey. Today, the Founder of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey Carries on His Legacy.
“This day is for those who need or desire a leg up,” Victoria Eady Butler, Green’s great-great-granddaughter and Uncle Nearest’s master blender, says of the Spirits on the Rise Summit. “People in the industry who look like me.”
With Eady Butler at the blending helm, Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey became the most-awarded American whiskey or bourbon of 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022. What’s more, Eady Butler became the first woman to win the Master Blender of the Year title at Whisky Magazine‘s American Icons of Whisky Awards in 2021 — and the first person to receive the honor for two consecutive years in 2022.
Entrepreneur sat down with Eady Butler at the distillery’s Barrel House II, where former horse stalls have been converted into booths for the second location of Chuck Baker’s beloved BBQ restaurant, to learn about her unexpected road to master blender, what goes into crafting the perfect blend and how it feels to carry on her family’s legacy.
“I just couldn’t say no to the opportunity to help continue my great-great-grandfather’s legacy.”
Despite being the great-great-granddaughter of the first-known Black distiller in the U.S., Eady Butler never set out to join the whiskey business.
Some of Eady Butler’s siblings continue to work at Jack Daniel’s to this day; the “beautiful relationship” between Daniel and Green continued with their families over generations, Eady Butler says. But she was always set on a career in law enforcement.
As a young girl, she dreamed of becoming the police commissioner or working in hostage negotiations. Those aspirations inspired her to study criminal justice at Middle Tennessee State University and launched her 31-year career with the Department of Justice, where, for more than 20 years, she led and supervised a team of criminal and forensic analysts.
Eady Butler was considering retirement when Weaver approached her about joining Uncle Nearest. “She and I connected and talked about what I could contribute to the team,” she recalls, “and honestly, I just couldn’t say no to the opportunity to help continue my great-great-grandfather’s legacy. So the ‘yes’ was easy.”
So, in March 2019, Eady Butler retired from the Department of Justice on a Thursday and went to work with Uncle Nearest on the following Monday. She started as the VP of administration, but it wasn’t long before Weaver approached her about the possibility of blending.
Although nervous, I just knew I wasn’t going to fail.
Eady Butler didn’t have any blending experience — but she was willing to give it a shot.
“The first time that I went in to blend, I went in carrying a ball of nerves,” Eady Butler says. “My background was not in the spirits industry; I had never even considered blending whiskey. I had always enjoyed it with my family and friends, planning cocktails and things like that, but had never blended whiskey — and of course I was nervous.”
But Eady Butler was surrounded by support. The Weavers and three team members with years of blending experience among them were standing by when Eady Butler attempted to blend her very first batch of 1884 Small Batch Whiskey.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey
Still, Eady Butler had the final say when it came to the blend. “The ultimate decision as to what was going to be blended was mine,” she says. “Although nervous, I just knew I wasn’t going to fail. And thankfully out of all the products that were laid on the table for me to taste, sample and blend, I made the right choices.”
Weaver told Eady Butler that halfway through the first blending session, she knew she “had something special” — so she asked her to blend another batch of the 1884 and hasn’t been back to observe her blending since, Eady Butler says.
“Fawn Weaver was my ultimate cheerleader,” Eady Butler says. “She entrusted a lot in me that day, but she was there cheering me on while I was doing it. That has carried me a long ways, and I’m grateful for that.”
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“I’m always looking to ensure that the finish is good, along with the taste, of course.”
Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey’s long list of achievements — 700 awards and accolades since the brand’s 2017 launch, including 78 “Best in Class” honors — is proof positive that Eady Butler was destined to be its master blender.
And it’s a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly. “We are a premium product, so I want to always ensure that what goes in the bottle meets the standard of our brand,” Eady Butler says. “And then the finish is always important to me. It was from that very first day, and it still is.”
Eady Butler samples and blends at cask strength then proofs down to ensure there’s not a lot of water in the product. “It is important to me that the finish be strong and kind of inviting, but not pungent,” she explains. “So I’m always looking to ensure that the finish is good, along with the taste, of course.”
Eady Butler is committed to keeping her palate sharp: She doesn’t eat or drink anything else while blending, and she won’t spit out any product either. She’s also “extremely loyal” to Uncle Nearest whiskey.
“I don’t know if it’s scientific, or if it’s just what I believe is necessary, but I don’t drink any other whiskey,” Eady Butler says. “I don’t want to do anything that may disrupt my palate.”
Image Credit: Courtesy of Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey
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“What keeps me going is making sure that we are always focused on Nearest Green.”
Becoming an award-winning master blender at her great-great-grandfather’s namesake distillery might not have been part of her original plan, but Eady Butler says the journey’s been one full of “beautiful surprises.”
One of them has been the experience of working with Uncle Nearest’s all-women executive team — something Eady Butler hadn’t experienced in law enforcement, where she says she was often the only woman in a room full of men.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Eady Butler says. “There is a beautiful acceptance around the table of who we are, just like we are. And then the creativity, the dedication, the juggling act that takes place oftentimes, multitasking. I feel very fortunate to work alongside them and have them as my family.”
What we are doing is way more than whiskey. Today, we are change agents.
And, of course, as the first-known Black woman with the master blender title in the U.S., Eady Butler gets to carry forward her ancestor’s legacy in an especially powerful and apt way, which she calls a “beautiful blessing.”
“I’m honored to be the first African American female master blender,” Eady Butler says. “But more than anything, what keeps me going is making sure that we are always focused on Nearest Green. When Fawn launched this brand, it was with the thought of ensuring that Nearest Green’s legacy would be cemented in history. And that is what keeps me going every day.”
Working at Uncle Nearest means there’s something new and exciting happening all the time, Eady Butler says. But at the end of the day, everything leads back to Nearest Green, the godfather of Tennessee whiskey who started it all — and whose legacy continues to lift other BIPOC founders and professionals in the spirits industry now.
“This morning, I woke up with excitement and anticipation that this day would be a springboard to change somebody’s life,” Eady Butler says, referring to the summit. “What we are doing is way more than whiskey. Today, we are change agents. And I’m glad to be a part of that.”